06 February 2019

Ernie Fitzgerald Remembered (II)

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) pays tribute to the memory of Ernie Fitzgerald in a 23 minute floor speech the Senate Floor, 6 February 2019.  (This is second posting about the late Ernie Fitzgerald; the first can be found at this link.)  
The text of Grassley’s tribute can be found at this link

See also this excellent remembrance by my friend and long time Pentagon watcher Andrew Cockburn in Counterpunch.
FEBRUARY 6, 2019
by ANDREW COCKBURN, Counterpunch, 6 February 2019
Ernie Fitzgerald, who died on January 31, always tried to be optimistic.  “That’s where the Joint Chiefs will make their last stand when the taxpayers finally storm the building,” he would say, pointing to the hot dog stand at the center of the Pentagon’s inner greensward.  The Chiefs would have richer territory to defend today – hot dogs have given way to an Au Bon Pain eatery, and defense spending has soared to heights even beyond the levels decried, and whenever possible sabotaged, by Ernie as he waged bureaucratic warfare from his guerrilla headquarters on the fifth floor.
That was long after he had been sacked from his position as a senior air force cost management official on the direct orders of Richard Nixon (“get rid of that son of a bitch”) for testifying to congress that the air force was facing, accepting, and concealing a $2 billion cost overrun on the C-5A transport plane being built by Lockheed.  Ernie sued Nixon and the cronies involved in the illegal firing, fought the case all the way to the supreme court, won his job back, sued again when the air force nevertheless refused him proper exercise of his responsibilities, and won again.
Even though the air force did its best to keep him well away from further official probes of major contractors’ larcenous operations, Ernie nevertheless not only inspired fellow whistleblowers and helped organize an effectiv system for promoting their revelations, but also, being a propagandist of genius, instilled in the public mind a perception of defense spending as systemized rip-off.
The inspiration benefited not only whistleblowers – he called it “committing truth” – but also journalists, as I can attest, having been the recipient of countless calls that invariably began with “this is o-o-ld Fitzgerald” in his beautifully modulated Alabama drawl.  But beyond such direct contacts, Ernie conceived and encouraged an organization, The Project on Military Procurement to broadcast revelations of Pentagon malfeasance while protecting the leaker, often via the cover of his potent contacts on Capitol Hill.  The Project subsequently evolved into the ongoing and potent Project on Government Oversight.
Ernie’s particular stroke of promotional insight was that, though the public’s eyes may glaze over when informed that some weapons system or other was costing billions more than initially advertised, they would readily understand the fraud of a toilet seat priced at $640, or a $435 hammer, obscenities that he unearthed and publicized, and that generated the appropriate outrage.  His hope was that such examples would lead to the understanding that grotesquely overpriced bombers and missiles were simply collections of such spare parts “flying in close formation.”
More fundamentally, Ernie’s experiences in the Pentagon weapons-buying culture lead him to the essential truth that outrageous weapons costs are not merely manifestations of corruption or incompetence, but actual official policy.  In his terrific books, High Priests of Waste and The Pentagonists (he wrote as well as he talked) he laid out an ironclad case for this proposition, including unguarded admissions by high officials such as Dr. Eugene Fubini, in his time a hugely influential Pentagon advocate for hi-tech (and invariably hugely expensive) weaponry, who stated publicly that defense spending could never be cut because “We have an arsenal economy, and we just can’t change it without violent dislocation.” Air Force General “Zeke” Zoekler went so far as to explain, in response to Ernie’s efforts to curb costly inefficiencies in a vast program supervised by the general, that so far as defense procurement was concerned, “inefficiency is national policy” necessary for the attainment of “social goals.”
Given that politicians and the universe of public opinion manipulators readily accept and tout this notion, regardless of whether we are thereby provided with an effective defense, or whether there is any threat against which we need to defend, it is hardly surprising that the military-industrial-complex enjoys almost unchallenged political power, a fact that Ernie well understood.  As he remarked to me in the aftermath of the 1980 election, in which both parties had held out promises of rivers of gold to the military in hopes of endorsement by the MIC, “The Joint Chiefs just auctioned off the presidency from the battlements of the Pentagon.”  Today’s world, in which our president’s agenda, generally marked by rapine and pillage, has proceeded almost without effective challenge except when he contemplated cutting the defense budget (Trump’s effort to cut it to $700 billion from the 2020 tab was almost immediately quashed) or halting foreign military engagements  (necessary excuses for budget nourishment) bely Ernie’s optimism regarding an eventual taxpayer revolt.  But he never gave up fighting.  We have lost a great patriot.
More articles by:ANDREW COCKBURN
Andrew Cockburn is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine.  An Irishman, he has covered national security topics in this country for many years.  In addition to publishing numerous books, he co-produced the 1997 feature film The Peacemaker and the 2009 documentary on the financial crisis American Casino.  His latest book is Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins (Henry Holt).

04 February 2019

Ernie Fitzgerald Remembered (I)

My long time friend and colleague, the legendary A. Ernest Fitzgerald (AF bio), passed away a few days ago at the age of 92 after a long illness.
Being around people like Ernie Fitzgerald was one of the main reasons I loved working in the Pentagon. Most people working in the Department of Defense go along to get along;  and while a majority (certainly not all) are patriotic, intelligent, and hard working … they are also boring.  But there is something about military institutions that attracts a very few fun-loving, brilliant mavericks who love to throw rocks at the institutional boat, particularly when it is in the interest of committing truth and doing what they believe to be right in the face of incompetence or corruption or both — and all institutions that spend other people’s money, like the DoD, are prone to both incompetence and corruption.  These mavericks have the same virtues as the majority — but they are definitely not boring, and they possess something else: an inner drive that is very rare.  Their numbers are few, because military institutions hate them, view them as being certifiably crazy, and go overboard to expel them.  On the other hand, these institutions need their “crazies” to stay healthy and vibrant.  The late Ernie Fitzgerald was one of the most precious of the “crazies” — and he beat the expulsion game in a truly amazing way. 
I first heard about Fitzgerald at the very beginning of my career in November 1968, when he testified — or in his words, “Committed truth” — to Senator Proxmire’s Joint Economics Committee on the huge cost overrun on the C-5A transport.  At that time I was a 2nd Lt buried in the Flight Dynamics Laboratory at Wright-Patterson AFB, and congressional hearings were distant abstract affairs.  But the newspaper reports of his testimony were electrifying.  Moreover, they struck home; I had been hearing horror stories about the C-5, particularly its landing gear, for almost a year from one of my closest friends, also a 2nd Lt, who worked in the C-5 program office, which was just down the street from my office.  My reaction was — Thank God, at least someone in DC has their head screwed on and is finally telling the truth about this piece of crap!  Ernie immediately became a hero to both my friend and me. 
I finally met Ernie 10 years later, when I was a civilian working in the Pentagon.  Ernie had been fired by the Air Force, but the expulsion failed spectacularly.  The AF was forced to rehire him, together with back pay, via a law suit that made it all the way to the Supreme Court together with some reckless statements about firing him by President Nixon that were discovered on the Watergate tapes.  Ernie had become world famous, not least because, in his spare time, he also penned the High Priests of Waste, a best selling book about his adventures in the Pentagon and the underlying causes of cost overruns.  
This book is now a classic, because Ernie was much more than a whistle blower; he was a brilliant industrial engineer who understood the pathological nature of manufacturing and contracting in the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex.  His timeless book should be mandatory reading still for anyone involved in the design and purchasing of weapons by the DoD.  Despite his fame, Ernie was in not in the least bit pretentious.  Quite the contrary, his twinkling eyes, infectious smile, and his deep Alabama accent were accompanied by a wonderful sense of humor that would have everyone (except the generals) rolling in the aisles with laughter.  We became fast friends over the following years.
Most of all, Ernie, the happy warrior, loved launching the V-2s in his righteous war against blatant government waste.  Everyone has heard about the $640 toilet seat and the $436 hammer, but many people do not realize that the thousands of newspaper reports about these outrages had their origin directly or indirectly in the anti waste campaign Ernie launched in the early days of Ronald Reagan's spending spree.  Without Ernie, there would have been no spare parts “horrors.”

In the early 1980s, Ernie, with his characteristic down-home humor, described to me the strategic goal of his spare parts crusade by saying (and this is almost a direct quote):  
“Chuck, you have to understand, an average person cannot relate to the overpricing of an airplane like the F-15 fighter or B-1 bomber or an M-1 tank, so first, we have to explain how the Pentagon’s overpricing scam works in terms of things they are familiar with, like toilet seats, hammers, screws, ash trays, etc.  Then, step 2 is simply to explain how an F-15 or B-1 bomber or M-1 is simply a bundle of overpriced spare parts flying in close formation.”  

The great Washington Post cartoonist, Herblock, was one of the very few observers who instinctively understood Ernie’s game plan, and he did some of his best work highlighting the connection between Steps I and 2.  
That Step 2 of Ernie’s strategy did not play out as he hoped is no reflection on him.  With a few exceptions, like Herblock, Step 2 was a mental 'bridge too far' for the crass publicity seeking predilections of the press-politician lash-up in the contemporary American Deep State.
Long-time defense reporter Mark Thompson has written a great tribute to Ernie's career that can viewed at this link.

Ernie was a great friend and an exemplar to anyone aspiring to a career in the Department of Defense.  I shall miss him.

21 January 2019

Who Killed Lt Van Dorn? (II)

The producers of the award winning documentary “Who Killed Lt Van Dorn?” (described here) have adapted their film for the public radio program and the podcast Reveal
“Who Killed Lt Van Dorn?” is a tragic story of one fatal helicopter crash and how that helicopter became the deadliest aircraft in the US military.  The podcast does not duplicate the movie, but is complimentary to it.

If you want to understand why throwing money at the Pentagon always results in more cries about low readiness, aging weapons, and shrinking forces … and cries for ever higher defense budgets, this tragic story is a good place to start.  It is a case study in the deeper problems afflicting the military -- and it should both anger and educate citizens of all political persuasions to elicit bi-partisan calls for reform. 

20 January 2019

Eisenhower’s Nightmare on Steroids (I)

by Chuck Spinney
Slightly different versions of this posting have appeared in The American Conservative at this linkon the website of the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity at this link, and on the website of the American Committee for East-West Accord at this link.

President Trump’s plan to escalate efforts in Ballistic Missile Defense, including the introduction of space-based weapons, should not be viewed in isolation.  
It comes on top of the Defense Department’s plan to execute an across-the-board modernization of all our nuclear strike forces.  It comes on top of the expansion of NATO under three Presidents despite earlier promises (here and here) to the contrary.  It comes on top of the unilateral decision by President Bush to withdraw from the ABM treaty in June 2002, on top of President Trump’s threat to withdraw from the INF treaty, and on top of Mr. Trump’s publication of a more aggressive Nuclear Posture Review.  To argue that such a massive effort is directed at deterring Iran or North Korea is ludicrous.  Russia and China know who these programs and policies are aimed at.
Viewed thru the lens of the precautionary principle: any sensible strategic planner in Russia and China would have no choice but to see these efforts as being a consistent, integrated plan to harden the US nuclear shield while sharpening the US nuclear sword.  Since the make up of the offensive modernization program — i.e., the nuclear sword — includes (1) adding precision guidance and upgrading the warhead to the dial-a-yield B-61 gravity bomb, (2) new/upgraded C4ISR  systems, (3) a massive modernization of nuclear laboratory infrastructure (4) new family of interoperable nuclear warheads for ballistic and cruise missiles, (5) new ICBMs, (6) new air launched cruise missiles, (7) new bombers, (8) new missile launching submarines, (9) modernized SLBMs, (10) new sea launched cruise missiles, (11) new space-based C4ISR systems, including (12) the possibility of ASAT capabilities, it is quite obvious that Russian and Chinese war planners will have no choice but to make the worst case assumptions about US intentions.  Russian and Chinese planners will be forced to assume the US is returning to the thoroughly discredited 1970s-era nuclear war-fighting theory of graduated nuclear escalation via the use of a series limited nuclear options, punctuated perhaps by diplomatic signaling.  Application of the precautionary principle by Russian and Chinese nuclear war planners would force them to conclude that the U.S. believes it can fight and win a nuclear war regardless of any US protestations about its sword-shield modernization plan being a defensive upgrade to a nuclear deterrence strategy. 
Perhaps more importantly, savvy Russian and Chinese political advisors will understand how the flood of money pouring into these sword/shield modernization efforts will paralyze the patronage-addicted U.S. decision making system.  The fact that the multi-billion dollar, failure-prone BMD program continued unabated after the end of the First Cold War illustrates the paralyzing staying power of patronage addiction.  Now, the flood of dollars to every congressional district will increase sharply, creating an even more powerful web of political patronage in the form of jobs, corporate profits, and domestic political power.  This web will, like its predecessors, lock in the continued funding of these programs for reasons of domestic politics that have nothing to do with the needs of foreign policy — and future political leaders in the United States will be trapped into continuing these programs for the reasons President Eisenhower outlined in his Farewell Address — only this time, our future will be Eisenhower’s nightmare on steroids.
So, even if President Trump has the best of intentions, he and his successors will find it impossible to convince Presidents Putin or Xi, or their successors, that the US political system does not want — or more accurately, does not need — a New Cold War. Given the current chaos in U.S. politics, our adversaries (and friends) may well think hyping the domestic politics of pervasive unreasoning fear by starting and maintaining a New Cold War is the only way the U.S. political elite can bring order to the increasingly corrupt, chaotic, and dysfunctional political system of their own making.  
In such circumstances, it is hard to see how Mr Trump could convince Presidents Putin and Xi that he really wants better relations, when his own government is unleashing huge uncontrollable domestic patronage forces that will shape such a US foreign policy for the next 30 to 50 years. 

05 November 2018

Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn

I am pleased to announce the Washington premier of an important investigative documentary film. “Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn,” will premier on November 14 at 7 PM in Landmark’s E Street Cinema, located at 555 11th Street NW, Washington DC.  Attached FYI is the official flyer by the sponsors of this premier.  

This superb documentary shows how the interests, idealism, and safety of young soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen at the pointy end of the spear are short shrifted time after time by contractor-friendly decision-making priorities aimed at promoting the profits and power of the Military - Industrial - Congressional Complex.  

If you want to understand why throwing money at the Pentagon always ends in more cries about low readiness, aging, and shrinking forces … and cries for ever higher defense budgets, this movie may anger you, but it is a good place to begin your research.

Chuck Spinney


The Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and the Project On Government Oversight are hosting a screening of the documentary film Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn? The poignant picture of one family's tragedy uncovers a long history of negligence and institutional failings that led to the fatal crash of a 53E helicopter, the deadliest aircraft in the military. A panel discussion will follow the film.

We hope you can attend a screening at 7:00pm, with doors opening at 6:40pm on Nov. 14 at Landmark's E Street Cinema. To order tickets, please click the Tickets Available button or follow this link: investigativestudios.ticketleap.com/who-killed-lt-van-dorn-dc/ 

Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn?
Written, Directed, and Produced by Zachary Stauffer
Associate Producer Jason Paladino
Contact: zachary.stauffer@gmail.com or 415-420-3032

Logline: “Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn?” is an intimate portrait of a deadly 2014 Navy helicopter crash that exposes how military, political and business leaders have failed our men and women in uniform.

One Paragraph Synopsis: Lt. Wes Van Dorn, a 29-year-old United States Naval Academy graduate and the married father of two young sons, died when the helicopter he was piloting crashed off the coast of Virginia during a 2014 training exercise. Motivated by her grief, his wife Nicole sought an explanation for the cause of the disaster. Her efforts spurred an investigation that uncovered a long history of negligence and institutional failings around the 53E helicopter—the model Van Dorn was piloting when he was killed, and the deadliest aircraft in the US military. Through incisive reporting and interviews with Van Dorn’s colleagues and family, Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn? is at once a poignant picture of one family's tragedy, as well as a revelatory inquiry into the murky inner-workings of the American defense establishment.

Film Website: vandornmovie.com

--San Francisco Chronicle

--The Mercury News

--The Nation magazine

Audience Award for Active Cinema at the Mill Valley Film Festival

Director Bio: Zachary Stauffer is a staff producer at UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program and its primary director of photography. Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn? is his first feature documentary. Throughout his career, he’s contributed to a number of documentary films, many for PBS Frontline, including Money and March Madness (2011), Murdoch’s Scandal (2012), and the DuPont award-winning Rape in the Fields (2013), and its follow-ups, Rape on the Night Shift (2015) and Trafficked in America (2018). His short documentary, A Day Late In Oakland (2008), about the murder of journalist Chauncey Bailey, was nominated for two IDA awards.

Backstory: “Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn?” is the first feature documentary produced at the Investigative Reporting Program at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley (IRP) by its new production arm Investigative Studios. Until now, the IRP has been largely known for the work of its founder, Lowell Bergman, on PBS Frontline and other outlets, including most recently this April, “Trafficked in America.”

This story story began when Associate Producer Jason Paladino, then a graduate student at the Graduate School of Journalism, lost his high school friend, aircrewman Brian Collins, on Van Dorn’s flight. The two grew up together in Truckee. After talking with Collins’s friends at the funeral, Paladino suspected that there might be a story to pursue on the Navy and Marine 53E helicopters and began to work on an investigation for his master’s thesis. That’s when he met Mike Hixenbaugh, a military reporter at the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, who had already started digging into the story of the 53. They opened up a collaboration and both became fellows at the IRP after Paladino graduated. They published a series of stories in the newspaper and, with the help of the IRP, a four-minute investigation on NBC Nightly News.

First-time director Zachary Stauffer, a staff producer and DP at the IRP, saw a larger story in Van Dorn’s death and began developing it as a film. What could explain the safety record of the 53, which has killed 132 people? What could the story of this helicopter tell us about how America’s military and the defense industry work? “Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn?” gathers all the strands from years of research—the emotional personal stories, the investigative findings and the context—and weaves them into a single unforgettable narrative.

Over the course of production, six alumni and 12 current students at the Graduate School of Journalism have worked on the film, reflecting Bergman’s teaching philosophy, that the best way to learn journalism is to do it. 

About Investigative Studios: Investigative Studios, Inc. is a nonprofit corporation formed for the purpose of newsgathering, journalism education and media production in support of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and its Investigative Reporting Program.

About The Investigative Reporting Program: The IRP is a professional newsroom and teaching institute at the University of California, Berkeley. We are committed to reporting stories that expose injustice and abuse of power while training the next generation of journalists in the highest standards of our craft.

27 October 2018

The Heat: Chas Freeman One-on-One

This video is a brilliant exegesis of the challenges facing US foreign policy in general and US - China relations in particular.  Former Ambassador Chas Freeman was President Nixon’s primary interpreter during Nixon’s historic opening to China.  He held a variety of high level positions in the State Department and the Pentagon, culminating his distinguished career as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.  
I urge all readers to listen carefully to this One-on-One interview with CGTN’s Anand Naidoo.

24 October 2018

Leak by Leak: Erdogan Exerts His Leverage Over the Saudis

by PATRICK COCKBURN, Counterpunch, OCTOBER 24, 2018
[Reposted with permission of author and editor]
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a skilful politician who knows how to maximise his advantages and this was very much on display in his speech to the Turkish parliament.
He contemptuously dismissed the official Saudi story that the murder of Jamal Khashoggi was the accidental outcome of a botched interrogation by a “rogue” Saudi intelligence team.
It was always naive to imagine that Mr Erdogan would tell all that Turkey knows about the murder and the Saudi role in it because such information – particularly the alleged audio recording of the killing – is invaluable in giving Turkey leverage over Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser degree, the US.
Mr Erdogan disappointed the media by not producing “a smoking gun”, but it is not in his interests to do so for the moment. However, he was categorical in showing that the killing of Mr Khashoggi was premeditated. “Intelligence and security institutions have evidence showing the murder was planned,” he said. “Pinning such a case on some security and intelligence members will not satisfy us or the international community.”
This unlikely narrative is, of course, exactly what Saudi Arabia is trying to sell to the rest of the world. Mr Erdogan did not mention Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by name. But then he does not have to. All he had to say was that “from the person who gave the order to the person who carried it out, they must all be brought to account”. The nation has repeatedly denied any suggestion that the crown prince may have been involved.
The crown prince is discovering, as have many authoritarian leaders in the past, that once you win total control of a country it becomes impossible to talk of ignorance of its crimes.
Mr Erdogan is shooting at an open goal. When Saudi Arabia denied knowing anything about the killing for 17 days and then issued a vague and unconvincing admission of the “rogue operation”, it created a vacuum of information about a story which the whole world is watching with fascinated interest. This vacuum is being filled by unattributable briefings by Turkish officials, drip-fed to the Turkish and international media at a pace geared to keep the finger pointing at Riyadh and the affair at the top of the news agenda.
The Saudi admission on 19 October that Mr Khashoggi was killed has made things worse rather than better for them. Their feeble cover story is already in shreds. Mr Erdogan is very reasonably asking what has happened to the body and what are the names of the Turkish “collaborators” to whom Riyadh is claiming operatives have handed over the corpse.
The problem for Saudi Arabia is that any attempt to explain away its role in the killing is likely to be immediately discredited by Turkish leaks. It is almost certain that the audio recording of Mr Khashoggi’s final moments really exists and will finally be made public. Meanwhile, it enables Turkey to pile on the pressure on the kingdom in the knowledge that it holds all the high cards.
It will play these cards very carefully because, once revealed, they lose their value. For Turkey, the Khashoggi affair has provided an unexpected and miraculous opportunity to recalibrate its relations with Saudi Arabia and the US to its own advantage. The Saudi bid to be the undisputed leader of the Sunni Muslims, although never really convincing and always overstating the kingdom’s strength, is dissolving by the day. Mr Erdogan can look to extract concessions – although he may not get them – from Saudi Arabia when it comes to the war in Yemen, the blockade of Qatar and confrontation with Iran, as well as financial benefits.
Whatever happens, the aggressive, arrogant but disaster-prone Saudi foreign policy over the last three years under the leadership of the crown prince is likely to be thoroughly diluted in future.
Mr Erdogan will be looking to modify the stance of the US towards Turkey on issues such as the US alliance with the Syrian Kurds, whose enclave in Syria Ankara denounces as being run by the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the Turkish state has been fighting since 1984.
Support free-thinking journalism and subscribe to Independent MindsThis is a delicate moment for President Trump. The Khashoggi affair may not much effect the midterm elections, but it will affect the US position in the world. Mr Trump’s most radical change of policy has been to exit the Iran nuclear deal and to reimpose severe sanctions on Iranian oil exports in early November. The main US regional ally in this was to have been the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, but this strategy is in deep trouble. Turkey has close if shaky relations with Iran and says it will not comply with sanctions. Saudi Arabia will go on being an important regional player because of its oil and money, but its prestige and influence have been damaged beyond repair.

If the crown prince does survive then he is likely to be much more under US influence and less likely to act independently than in the past. For the moment, he will be watching the news from Ankara and living from leak to leak.